When I was about five or six, I went skipping down the road with my Grandma singing ‘Lily the Pink’. It’s a special kind of skipping dance you have to do to that song, to accompany the rather raucous lyrics: “Aaaaand we’ll drink a drink a drink to Lily the Pink the pink the pink, the saviour of the human ra-a-ace, for she invented medicinal compound, most effacious in every case”. Recently, it was all I could do to stop myself skipping with the all the abandon of a five-year-old who has no idea what effacious means but likes singing the word all the same, when I found myself at Lac Rose, Senegal’s naturally pink lake, where loquacious vendors flog fleur de sel harvested from the lake, spinning promises of its medicinal properties into their sales pitches.
There’s always a chance of disappointment when it comes to natural wonders, especially in this age of Instagram filters. Those multicoloured mountains might turn out to be varying shades of beige, while waterfalls which are supposed to shimmer with rainbows and quite possibly fairy-dust, may turn out to be grey chutes of water, disappearing into a fog, rather than a delicate mist. So I was keeping my expectations of a pink lake in check. Perhaps, I thought, Lac Rose might have a hint of some unusual colour about it, but I wasn’t holding my breath.
After a bumpy, two-hour journey from Dakar, via the boisterous town of Keur Massar, we arrived at Lac Rose (you can do the journey in about 40 minutes on a private tour, but it costs about twenty times as much, and you miss out on the fun of being pressed into a space you didn’t think you could actually physically fit into, your skeleton being slowly reshaped by unforgiving metal poles, and having a random child or bucket of potatoes thrust upon your waiting lap). At first, I thought my preparation for disappointment was well-placed: there was no doubt that the lake was rather beautiful, and after a couple of weeks in the hustle and bustle of Dakar, seeing some nature was a treat. But it looked very blue. However, as we walked around the edge of the lake, the colours shifted, and slowly, a definite pink tinge emerged.
By the time we’d run the gauntlet of salt and jewellery sellers, dodging erratically-driven, beaten-up old cars, and the odd, inexperienced tourist at the helm of a hefty quad-bike, we’d arrived at an area of the lake which was indisputably, utterly pink.
In the brilliant midday sun – incidentally, not the best time to be out exploring the lake if, like me, you have Celtic skin – the colours were rich and many. The water itself ranged from gentle salmon tones to almost purple, while the white of the salt pyramids along the shore was almost blinding. At the water’s edge, wild samphire and weird, gelatinous foam, which freed itself from the lake and went bouncing across the land like tumbleweed, added to the cornucopia of colours.
A little further, and we were in the heart of the salt-farming industry. Lac Rose has a 40% salt content, providing much of Senegal’s salt supply. Small pirogues were out on the lake, their single occupants sifting up salt. As they came, fully loaded, back towards the shore, a chain of people would wade in to ferry the salt onto land. In places, the salt was piled as high as small hills, where workers shovelling and bagging the stuff would stop to rest. There was even a guy on one salt pile selling cafe touba, proving one of the rules of Senegalese life, namely that wherever you go, there will always be someone selling cafe touba. We took a seat on the salt and sipped the coffee, the herbal, cloyingly sweet taste bringing to mind once again Lily the Pink and her medicinal compounds.
Tourists at Lac Rose are surprisingly thin on the ground – the souvenir sellers, in fact, outnumber those who might possibly buy their trinkets – so the whole place has a calm, everyday sense about it, dominated by the rhythm and labour of the salt farming, while being an utterly extraordinary sight. Depending on how the light is hitting the water and which side of the lake you’re on, the colour varies from coral pink to sky blue, and every shade between. You can take pirogue trips on the water, but we were content just to wander, then retire to a restaurant with views of the lake for a local drink and snack, bissap juice and peanuts, which are almost as ubiquitous in Senegal as cafe touba.
Suffice to say that Lac Rose exceeded my expectations, and then some. It was all I could do not to skip back to the bus for the bone-crushing journey back to Dakar, swinging my newly-acquired bag of fleur de sel and singing ‘Lily the Pink’ at the top of my lungs, for Lac Rose has a richness of effacious medicinal properties, both for the body and spirit, that would make Lily proud.